Theatre review – ‘Tribes’ at the Royal Court

I was a little worried before I saw the Royal Court’s Tribes – a play about a deaf boy who finds his deaf identity after growing up in a hearing family – because I’ve seen a number of films and plays get deafness wrong.

With knowledge of deafness – and what it’s like to be part of the deaf community – often restricted to people with a direct experience of it, a hearing audience (and critics) often praise dramas that deaf people themselves feel is unrealistic or patronising. Happily, neither of those criticisms apply in this case.

This is a play that manages to convey – in only two hours – what some people spend a lifetime trying to learn and understand about what it’s like to be deaf – whether you are born deaf, or deafness happens to you.

Writer Nina Raine cleverly portrays different types of deaf people, is brave in writing brutal, stinging dialogue that sometimes reveals the limitations of the deaf world, and positive in explaining the sense of belonging the deaf community can offer – all through the story we see before us.

This is a play about language and understanding. The opening scene starkly shows an experience familiar to many deaf people, as a middle class family argue passionately with one another around a dinner table. These are rapid-fire conversations full of conflict, frustration and humour – yet while everyone else talks and fidgets and comes in and out of the room, one person stays remarkably still, and passive. Billy, who is deaf.

Billy is not only left out, he’s almost invisible. Until the day he tells his family he has a girlfriend – Sylvia, who is from a deaf family, and is herself going deaf. Soon, he is learning to sign, news which is greeted with scepticism and suspicion.

When Billy brings Sylvia to dinner, she finds herself forced not only to explain deaf culture, but also to defend herself from an interrogation by his academic father (superbly played by Stanley Townsend). When Sylvia defiantly shows just how sign language can visually translate the emotions in poetry, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

If Billy is passive and quiet in the first half of the play, after the interval we see him challenge his family for the first time, as his sense of a deaf identity takes hold. Themes established as ideas or theories in the first half are presented in a much more personal way in the second, and the ending sent a shiver down my spine. That’s a cliche I know, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but here it is: I was moved.

The writing, acting and direction are excellent. Deaf actor Jacob Casselden deserves special praise for his intense yet subtle performance. Loud applause and cheers at the end of the play summed up the audience response, while us deafies in the circle did our best to ‘wave’ deaf applause that Jacob could see.

Tribes has the potential to have a truly transforming effect on the perceptions of hearing people with no knowledge of deafness at all, and I would recommend that deaf people who share Billy’s experience of being left out drag their hearing families to this play even if by force, because it may just sum up something they have never felt able to say.

Meanwhile for a deaf person, Tribes presents a world we already know more dramatically and eloquently than I have seen before. This should be seen as a shining example of how to make a rich, textured drama full of revelations about the deaf experience.

One deafie in our group got it right as we spoke in the Royal Court’s foyer afterwards. He told me the play made him feel “empowered.” I’d say that’s about right.

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